Hashd al-Shaabi launched an offensive on Tal Afar on 29 October; the looming recapture of Tal Afar prompted a strong reaction from Turkey, which maintains ties to the Turkmen population there. Tal Afar is thus yet another flashpoint of competing interests between Ankara, Erbil, Baghdad, and Tehran and can possibly further destabilise the situation in Nineveh.
On 29 October, the Iraqi state-sponsored forces the Hashd al-Shaabi (HS) opened another front against the Islamic State (IS) in Nineveh. Advancing to the northwest through desert areas, its ultimate goal is to defeat IS in Tal Afar. The move provoked a strong reaction from Turkey, including their move to amass additional troops along the Iraqi border on 01 November. Turkey maintains strong ties with Sunni Turkmens and cited fears over possible sectarian violence against them incited by HS. Additionally, Turkey has been voicing concerns over the presence of Kurdistan Workers’ Party-linked forces (PKK) in Nineveh, namely in Shingal. There have been variousunconfirmed reports regarding the possibility of the PKK entering Tal Afar along with the HS. Containing the PKK in the region is one of Turkey’s core interests. Moreover, given the already deteriorated relations between Ankara and Baghdad and competition between Iran and Turkey, Tal Afar is another flashpoint that adds to the complex situation. The question is why Tal Afar is strategically and symbolically important for Turkey, Baghdad and Tehran, and to what extent a looming struggle over its fate can lead to further destabilisation?
Tal Afar’s Strategic Importance and Symbolism
Pre-IS, the sub-district of Markaz Tal Afar was inhabited mainly by Turkmen, with a minority of Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The Turkmen population is divided into a Sunni majority (70–80%) and a Shiite minority (20-30 %). Tal Afar has traditionally been a hotbed for various Sunni insurgency groups in the post-2003 era given the fact that Sunni Turkmen enjoyed a favourable position during Saddam’s regime and that many of the Tal Afar Turkmen held high posts in Saddam’s security apparatus. It is one of the reasons why Sunni revisionism has found considerably fertile ground in Tal Afar. By 2005, the area itself became one of the strongholds of Sunni insurgencies against the US forces and Baghdad government, including the previously named al-Qaeda in Iraq of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. This trend has continued with other incarnations of Sunni extremist groups resurfacing after 2011. For IS, Tal Afar has similar importance as it did for its predecessors: it oversees the main route between Mosul and Raqqa and other IS-held territories in Syria, and serves as an important recruitment pool for its forces.
Read the full policy brief at the MERI website.